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Greater Fort Lauderdale

Leaving My Cares at a Sunny Baggage Claim

Leaving My Cares at a Sunny Baggage Claim

Sunny Baggage Claim

Fort Lauderdale has become the go-to travel destination for trans folks.

Unlike many trans men, I did not stop traveling after I came out. I just became a lot more selective about where I went. Suddenly safety was a factor in my vacation decisions in a way it hadn't been before when I scrolled aimlessly through dreamy water-front resort ads and adventure travel guides.

This explains why I was already 30,000 feet in the air, and halfway to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, before I realized that I had left a familiar piece of baggage behind this trip: fear.

While gay, lesbian, and bisexual folks have flocked to traditional queer resort towns since the early half of the 20th century, transgender men and women haven't found a vacation home of our own.

Companies rarely think about trans travelers specifically--we've rarely been seen as a group worth marketing to--and, outside of California (where there's a new law mandating such), too few restaurants, hotels, and convention centers have gender-neutral bathrooms for customers. But all that has changed.

Two years ago, the already LGBQ-friendly Fort Lauderdale decided to reach out specifically to transgender travelers. In fact, the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau became the first tourism department in the U.S. to produce ad campaigns aimed squarely at us. These ads aren't just trans friendly, they are addressed directly at transgender travelers.

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Richard Gray, pictured above right, a former hotelier who is now managing director of LGBTQ the GFLCVB, has been welcoming the LGBTQ market for over two decades. Way back in 1996 (remember, this was before even Ellen DeGeneres was out), Fort Lauderdale became the first convention and visitors bureau to offer a gay and lesbian vacation planner and dedicated website on their homepage.

Earlier this year, Gray told AdWeek that Fort Lauderdale now welcomes about 1.5 million LGBTQ travelers annually, and those visitors contribute $1.5 billion to the area's economy. By a decade ago, the city was already among the top destinations not just for gay men but also lesbians, LGBTQ families, and bisexuals of all genders.

In 2015, sunny Fort Lauderdale's convention and visitors bureau approached organizers of the Southern Comfort Transgender Conference, the largest trans conference in North America, with the aim of enticing the conference to leave Atlanta.

After 26 years in Atlanta, making the move to another state was a big ask, but Alexis Dee, executive director of SCTC, says it also made sense.

"We basically moved the conference from Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale to try and reach a broader audience," says Dee. The move also added an element of vacation fun to the conference, which brings together trans folks, educators, doctors, and LGBTQ organizations for a weekend of education.

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Southern Comfort is back in Fort Lauderdale again this year--September 14-16 at Riverside Hotel--in large part thanks to the welcome wagon launched by the GFLCVB.

"I don't think that there are many cities the size of Fort Lauderdale and the surrounding areas that openly welcome the LGBT community as they do [in] New York and San Francisco and Philadelphia," says Dee.

This year, Dee says, there will be a "more precise conference" with extra emphasis on "empowerment, jobs, and travel for the trans community."

It's an evolution of a conference that has been literally saving lives for nearly three decades. "It gave me the information I needed to be the person I am now," Dee says. "It gave me the courage to come out to my family and friends as transgender, and it made my life incredibly better."

While trans people still face discrimination, many are coming out earlier--more often than ever before to accepting families--so conference organizers are pivoting to meet evolving needs. But at the root of the new Southern Comfort is Fort Lauderdale.

"Richard Gray and the GFLCVB have gone out of their way to try and accommodate the transgender traveler," Dee explains. "They have done their homework in surveying and researching and talking to the trans community to address key areas of concern and educate the hospitality industry. That's why their advertising and promotions showing Fort Lauderdale as safe and friendly for anybody in the LGBT community are so successful. It is based upon fact."

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In fact, while the convention and visitors bureau's first trans initiatives were trans-specific, this year the group launched a whole new mainstream global marketing and advertising campaign that features three trans models. Fort Lauderdale became the world's first destination to use transgender models in their mainstream destination advertising. Just trans people, being trans people.

The campaign, which also features gay, lesbian, bi, and straight folks, is largely aimed toward millennials and younger travelers who don't just tolerate but actively seek out destinations that are authentically diverse and inclusive.

The Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau's ambitious effort, which has appeared everywhere from The New York Times to Hulu, debuted with a giant Times Square billboard video that served as a backdrop to New York City's famous New Year's Eve ball drop. The video starred Isabella Santiago, the gorgeous Venezuelan model who was 2014's Miss International Queen.

"Using trans models in our mainstream campaign says who we are as a destination; cosmopolitan, edgy, diverse, inclusive, authentic and accepting," Gray says. "We are the only destination in the world that is using trans people in mainstream marketing initiatives."

That the GFLCVB sought out trans models for a marketing campaign aimed at straight people is an enormous statement in itself--a way to highlight what Gray calls the area's commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equality.

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"We want all travelers that visit our destination to be free to be themselves," Gray says, "to be free to be accepted, and most of all to be safe and respected."

Which is exactly what people like me and Alexis Dee are looking for. Well, that and a vibrant nightlife, amazing beaches, beautiful weather, delicious cuisine, and the availability of authentic pina coladas. (OK, that last one is all me.)

"[Many] larger cities do not have the charm and the attractions that Fort Lauderdale has," says Dee. "There's the beach, of course, and so many great restaurants and such great shopping, boating, and water taxis going up the Intracoastal Waterway. And let's not forget Shooters Waterfront, which is a great bar and restaurant."

There are also a long list of gay-owned and trans-friendly bars and restaurants, including Village Pub Wilton Manors, which features dancing, pub food, and sports; Georgie's Alibi (where Dame Edna performs), known for Thursday night parties that spill out into the parking lot; Rosie's Bar & Grill, the perfect place for both brunch and booze; and Hollywood, Florida's Castle Lounge, where trans women, drag queens, and cross dressers mingle with the men who love them.

For outdoor enthusiasts, Fort Lauderdale boasts 23 miles of accessible beaches, and over 300 miles of inland waterways. They run from the Intracoastal Waterway to the Everglades National Park, the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, where you're likely to spot crocodiles, manatees, and possibly even elusive panthers.

Dee sums it up brilliantly: "If you're bored in Fort Lauderdale, it's your fault."

The city is proving itself to be the welcome, entertaining and safe vacation destination that trans travelers have been looking for. Leave your trepidation on the luggage carousel and enjoy all sunny Fort Lauderdale has to offer.

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